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Who Wants to Be a Poker Millionaire?

The game is shedding its outlaw image and going prime-time, with big purses up for grabs
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

That a poker game is poised to start at the Bellagio is not exactly news. Even that it's a tournament with a $25,000 buy-in—the highest in history—won't stop the presses. Take into account, however, that the game at the Las Vegas hotel-casino is being played on a hard-angled soundstage, backdropped by a set worthy of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and will be seen by an estimated 5 million television viewers, and it starts to become something else altogether.

The event gains resonance when you consider that, until the last 10 or so years, poker was viewed largely as a backroom enterprise, and the outside world regarded its high-stakes practitioners as being more than a little bit sketchy. Now, however, poker tournaments are airing each week on cable TV, via the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour," scheduled in prime time and generating talk around office watercoolers. Factor in that major publishers have recently released books by poker greats Phil Helmuth and Amarillo Slim. It's clear that a seismic shift is taking place. Poker is being mainstreamed into the same culture that loves NASCAR, "Survivor" and the U.S. Open. Right now the flinty-eyed guys with stacks of hundreds and mad chip-riffling skills are not the only ones staking big money on the game.

The Bellagio tournament's field of 111 players, each of whom has put up $25,000 or won a seat via satellite tournaments or previous World Poker Tour events, has been winnowed down to six card sharks competing for a first prize of $1,011,886 in this season finale. Situated under bright lights and bathed in smoke, the game's table has been specially equipped with tiny cameras that read players' hole cards. Perched behind the action, poker pro Mike Sexton and amateur enthusiast Vince Van Patten provide color and commentary for viewers at home; sometimes their remarks are dubbed into the edited tape, making them seem like the smartest guys in the world.

Today's finalists include Kirill Gerasimov, a Matt Damon look-alike from Moscow whose presence in the tournament had been arranged specifically by the Bellagio; Alan Goehring, a former Wall Street trader who spends two months a year playing the biggest tournaments in town; Phil Ivey, an Atlantic City poker king who's often lauded as the game's Tiger Woods; and the legendary Doyle Brunson, the author of Super System (a book that schooled many a young player).

Minutes before the first cards are dealt, Brunson sits alongside his son Todd, a top player in his own right, and marvels at what the game has become. A TV camera swooshes past him, production executives scurry around, and a PR woman hands out T- shirts adorned with the World Poker Tour logo. "I wish I could've shown some people futuristic pictures of this," says Brunson, possibly thinking of long-gone poker stars such as Johnny Moss and Brunson's old partner, Brian "Sailor" Roberts. "They wouldn't believe it. It would be like bringing back Ben Siegel and showing him the Vegas Strip."

Following several hours of heart-stopping play, only the Russian Gerasimov and the American Goehring remain in contention. The capacity crowd, sitting in bleachers, watch what two decades ago might have been a cold-war showdown. Both players hide their eyes behind enormous sunglasses. Gerasimov does a weird annoying swishing thing every time he takes a sip of water. Goehring maintains tight-lipped concentration and looks like the Terminator's skinny, brainy younger brother. On the final hand, after the flop comes 4, 5, 8, Goehring goes all in and Gerasimov calls. It puts Goehring in the lead until the next card is revealed to be 7, which gives Gerasimov his straight. Goehring, a frequent also-ran in big tournaments, needs to get lucky on the river. The room holds its collective breath. The dealer burns and turns, revealing…an 8.

It gives Goehring his full house. The lithe Wall Streeter leaps in the air and shows a burst of emotion that's the antithesis of his stoic table persona. Gerasimov whips off his sunglasses and looks miserable. "He told me that he's the world heads-up champion," says Goehring, as a couple of stunning World Poker Tour presenters, dressed in spangly evening gowns, swoon around him and a mountain of hundreds stacked on the poker table. "I hardly play any heads-up and I thanked him for telling me. Not exactly a good move on his part. I won a hand and got into his style of play: he never raised before the flop, and when the board looked scary he tried to power the pot." Goehring looks as if he's got more to say, but a photo op alongside the women in the gowns trumps our conversation.


In downtown Vegas and a world away from the publicly traded glitz of the Bellagio, Binion's Horseshoe is just getting started with its own poker event, the preliminary tournament that kicks off the 34th annual World Series of Poker. This marks the first time that the Series has had formidable competition and it shows: fewer people are playing in the early games than in previous years. This situation has not gone unnoticed by players—people who'll handicap anything. Many on the poker circuit have concluded that the Bellagio event is designed to put a dent into the Horseshoe's famous $10,000 buy-in that seems to draw more players and more revenue every year and has inspired a global circuit of tournament poker.

If Benny Binion Behnen, Horseshoe heir apparent, is concerned about the competition, he's not showing it. "The more popular tournament poker gets, the better it is for everybody," he insists, puffing on a cigarette just outside a sprawling room where one of his tournaments is in progress. "People find ways to get money for tournaments." Then Behnen hesitates for a beat and softly allows, "The $25,000 buy-in is a big step. And it did soak up the economy at some point."

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